Courcelette: Canada’s Forgotten Battlefield

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A century ago today the men of the Canadian Corps made an assault on the village of Courcelette as part of the Battle of the Somme. This was a battle of firsts for Canada: it was the first time the Canadian Corps had led an attack, it was the first time anyone had gone into battle with tanks, it was the first time Canadian troops had liberated French soil and a French village, and symbolically it was the first time the French-Canadian 22nd Battalion Canadian Infantry had gone into battle, to help liberate that village. The village was captured with the assistance of those tanks, especially in the area of the Sugar Factory. And while Courcelette was taken on this day, the Canadian Corps would remain here for the next two months battling for positions like Zollern Graben, the North and South Practice trenches and finally Regina Trench and Desire Trench. By the time Canadian units pulled out in November 1916, more than 24,000 Canadians had become casualties: more than 8,500 of them killed and of them, over 6,000 missing – half of the names on the Vimy Memorial commemorate men who died at Courcelette.

Sugar Factory, Courcelette

Sugar Factory, Courcelette

But for Canada, Courcelette is a forgotten battle. Despite its symbolic position in the history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, despite the huge scale of the missing, few Canadians visit the village and the three cemeteries that surround it: Courcelette British Cemetery, Regina Trench Cemetery and ADANAC Cemetery… ADANAC is Canada spelt backwards. Canadian education groups and Canadian battlefield tours come to the Somme every year but they always visit the Newfoundland Park at the expense of Courcelette: which while the park is now run and maintained by Veterans Affairs Canada, it has no connection to the story of Canada in WW1 as the Newfoundland Regiment was part of the British Army, and Newfoundland itself was not part of Canada until after WW2. Even the local tourist authorities on the Somme invariably describe the Newfoundland Park as a “Canadian Battlefield”. Meanwhile the fields around Courcelette remain silent.

Courcelette aerial photo 1916

Courcelette aerial photo 1916

Today a handful of people will remember Courcelette, in the village and the cemeteries. There will be no big official ceremony, and possibly no official Canadian representation. A century on, Canada’s knowledge of the Great War is still over-dominated by Vimy Ridge and Canada’s sacrifice on the Somme in 1916 sadly appears to be a footnote in that war when it should be so much more.

 

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Somme100: Birth of the Tanks

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On this day a century ago a new type of warfare began: the use of tanks. Tanks had originally been developed by the Navy as ‘Landships’ but the Army had taken over their use and development, and by midway through the Somme campaign they were at last ready for use. The name ‘tank’ was adopted because as they were being developed they had been described as ‘water tanks’ for Mesopotamia. At this stage of the conflict tank units were part of the Heavy Branch Machine Gun Corps, becoming the Tank Corps in July 1917.

On 15th September 1916 British and Commonwealth forces attacked on a wide front on the Somme from Courcelette on the left, to the area close to Combles on the right. More than thirty tanks were employed, with many breaking down even before they could go into action and once on the battlefield, often with mixed results. However, there were some major successes at Courcelette and Flers for example: at Flers the national press proclaimed that a tank had moved down the main street with the whole of the British Army behind, cheering!

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Images of the first use of tanks on 15th September 1916 are rare and these come from a small album owned by a New Zealand soldier and are in the possession of my good friend Geoff Bridger, himself a published WW1 historian, who loaned me them for my Walking the Somme book when it first appeared in 1997. They show two different tanks, a Female armed with Vickers Machine-Guns and a Male, armed with 6-pounder guns. The superb First Tank Crews website shows that these tanks were from D Company . The Female tank may be D10 commanded by 2/Lt Harold Darby and the Male tank is either D11 or D12. All these tanks ditched while in action.

Today we remember those first tank crews in the first action of the ‘Boilerplate War’.

Somme100: South Africans Enter Delville Wood

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A century ago on this day in 1916 the men of the South African Brigade entered Delville Wood, on the Somme. The South African Brigade had been formed from South African units which had fought in South-West Africa and had come to France in 1916 where they joined the 9th (Scottish) Division. Commanded by Brigadier-General Lukin, on 14th July 1916 they formed up close to the wood

South African Infantry 1916

South African Infantry 1916

while the fighting for Longeuval village was still on-going and then entered the wood with orders to hold it against German attacks. After six days of fighting from tree to tree, shell hole to shell hole, with on occasions more than 500 shells a minute dropping on the wood, the wood was still in South African hands as they were relieved by British units. On 14th July 1916 some 121 officers and 3,032 men had marched into battle; now only 29 officers and 751 other ranks remained. It was the greatest place of South African sacrifice on the Great War battlefields so the wood was purchased as a permanent memorial after the war. Today it is one of the most impressive sites on the Somme battlefields.

All that remained of Delville Wood 1916

All that remained of Delville Wood 1916

 

Somme100: The Hell They Called High Wood

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Today marks the centenary of the first attacks on High Wood, or Bois des Fourcaux to the French. The wood sits on a high point which commands a large area of ground where the Battle of the Somme was fought between July and September 1916. On this day in 1916 the wood was attacked by cavalry, a mixed force of British Dragoons and Indian Lancers. This attack, over open ground largely untouched by bombardments, took the Germans by surprise. One Indian Cavalry account recalled:

” As each squadron cleared the defile it formed line and advanced at a gallop in the direction taken by the advanced guard, which lay through a broad belt of standing corn, in which small parties of the enemy lay concealed. Individual Germans now commenced popping up on all sides, throwing up their arms and shouting ” Kamerad,” and not a few, evidently under the impression that no quarter would be given, flung their arms around the horses’ necks and begged for mercy — all of which impeded the advance. It was about this time that one of our aeroplanes came over, flying very low and firing tracer bullets to show the positions of hostile machine-guns and also that of a German trench which ran from High Wood to Delville Wood and which, owing to the corn, was invisible. When the advanced guard reached its objective, a German trench to the north of Delville Wood, occupied by infantry, could be seen clearly and German artillery (located by the flash of the guns) opened fire… During the whole period of the advance the regiment had been exposed to flanking machine-gun fire from Delville Wood.”

But the advance could not and was not exploited, and two months of fighting for the wood raged thereafter: costly infantry assaults, bombardments from everything from shrapnel to incendiary, gas attacks, flame throwers, mining, attacks from the air. In the end it fell to troops of the 47th (London) Division with the assistance of tanks on 15th September 1916.

High Wood 1916, aerial image (IWM Q 55727)

High Wood 1916, aerial image (IWM Q 55727)

By the end of the Battle of the Somme it was estimated that at least 8,000 British soldiers had perished in the fighting for High Wood; and it’s dominance on the ground even today, a century later, makes it both an impressive and foreboding place to visit.